Enough of the crammed economy class seats — it’s time to do something!

shutterstock_340080179
By | January 23rd, 2016

One of the airline trends we’re watching in 2016 was started by Airbus last summer: packing 11 seats per row on its A380 superjumbo jets.

It’s become a knee-crushing arms race, or, as the airlines like to call it, “cost savings.”

But, who really wins?

It’s not hard to argue that, in economy class today, the majority of the seats are too small.

Given the lack of competition, the mergers that have shaped the U.S. airline marketplace, and the health risks of sardine-esque legroom, there needs to be a simple minimum standard of at least 34 inches of seat pitch and 18 inches of width.

Last summer, Airbus floated a trial balloon — an 11-seats-per-row aircraft — where 10 abreast is already considered high-density. The news went over like a lead balloon. Public reaction was almost universally negative.

Incredibly, Airbus claimed it was “very satisfied” with its 3-5-3 economy class cabin design, which will meet the needs of a new breed of customer. Airbus has achieved this unprecedented compression by cutting seat width by an inch, slashing armrest widths by just over an inch, slanting window armrests outwards, and shrinking the aisles.

At some point, safety trumps capitalism. And that’s where government steps in.

In August, FlyersRights.org filed a formal Petition for Rulemaking with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to set minimum standards guaranteeing each passenger adequate leg, hip and shoulder room.


Of course, the airlines hate this, and contend that minimum seat standards will lead to higher prices and fewer choices. But the reality is quite the opposite; such standards will level the playing field between airlines, and ensure that the price of an economy class airline seat on one airline is truly comparable to that of another airline.

Related story:   Are you ready for a terrorist attack at sea? Is your cruise line?

There is no magic in the supposedly lower fares (and higher fees) charged by airlines that have cut back on legroom and seat sizes. One way or another, passengers still pay the price for smaller seats — if not in cash, then in bruised knees, broken laptops, increased respiratory illness, increased risk of Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVT), and air rage leading to diverted flights.

No middle ground. This is clearly a situation where the market has failed. Consumers desperately want a choice between crammed economy class and super-expensive first class. There is little middle ground for seat width, and people keep getting bigger. It’s not like most consumer products, where you get a range of options to suit your budget.

The airline industry’s argument that consumers already have a choice is laughable.

Business- and first class are almost completely cost-prohibitive for the average leisure traveler, so regulation is needed to ensure minimum comfort.

This reduction of passenger space in the quest for higher profits has created a critical situation by pushing the limits — not only of safety and comfort, but of health as well. Being confined in a small seat for several hours can be life-threatening.

We urge you to insist the FAA act now to stop the trend to smaller seats and jam-packed planes. You can have a say in what those standards will be.



  • AJPeabody

    If I understand it correctly, premium economy offers more leg room but does not address the lack of seat width, a serious problem when a majority of the adult population is overweight and narrow seats cannot accommodate a significant proportion of the male population whose shoulders are wider than average.

  • Doug

    True premium economy (on wide-body planes) does offer both more legroom and more shoulder room. For example, on a 777 economy will be 10-across while premium economy will be 8-across. On narrow-body planes, economy class has been losing legroom, but the seats are not getting narrower. A 737 or A320 still has 6-across, just like it did 20 years ago. On these flights, every major carrier offers seating with extra legroom for a fee. Consumers have the choice of getting the lowest airfare in history, or paying more for more comfort. The market is working exactly as it is supposed to.

  • KanExplore

    I’m with you. If I want extra room there are almost always some type of premium economy seats available, whatever the particular airline calls them. Yet I’ve often seen some of those seats going begging, while the lowest fare economy seats are full. My prediction is that if the writer’s demands that the government dictate seat standards are ever adopted, all seat prices will rise to the range of what premium economy costs now. Obviously airlines would have to rip out several rows of seats, which means charging more for the ones that are left. It also means some passengers unable to fly at all, due to both reduced capacity and higher prices.

  • Tom McShane

    How much more does a premium economy seat cost?

  • C Schwartz

    It does depend on the airline. Lufthansa economy on the A380 has a width of 17″ in economy. Premium economy is 18.2 inches and business is 19.7

  • Bill___A

    A United “plus” seat from Houston to London, I believe, cost an extra $300. For one way. Airlines profit because they take away the room and then charge a disproportionate amount of money for you to regain some of it, whilst threatening sky high air fares if they aren’t allowed to cut the seat size down. If you were to look at all the various claims: Business and first class are higher priced to subsidize the economy. Economy fares would rise exponentially if you were to not take away so much room. We have to create a no frills discount airline subsidiary (with fewer amenities and the same fares). One would conclude that discount airlines with no premium class and lower fares than the majors must lose a ton of money since they don’t have business class to subsidize them.

    The point is, the number one driver shouldn’t be price. There should be minimum seat sizes, minimum safety standards, minimum guidelines of several kinds and then when that “base” is established for all airlines, they can compete.

    Letting people take away things they shouldn’t be allowed to remove in the name of “consumer demand” is a fool’s game. and we have all been playing a fool’s game for a long time.

    Let’s do away with all of the smoke and mirrors and get some common sense rules in place.

    As long as there are no minimum seat sizes and the existence of resort fees, it looks to me that consumer lobbyist organizations are a complete failure.

  • Tom McShane

    I agree.
    There is a deep and wide fund of knowledge among the commenters on this site.
    I wonder how much it would actually increase coach prices per seat if the feds implemented regulations mandating comfortable seat size. I suspect that it would not price millions of people out of air travel

  • Bob Davis

    Given how difficult it’s becoming to get rewards seats on various airlines how about they just cut them out altogether. I no longer fly based on what rewards I get and many travel writers do either. I would rather pay double for a 2×2 seat with leg room than jammed in into economy. We just paid for first class seats cross country to Seattle for April. A bit expensive but not out of the ballpark.

    On the downside for our return flight United just turned our 90 minutes layover in Denver into about 4 hours.

  • LostInMidwest

    For all those that like to say “people voted with their wallets” and that seals the discussion about Government intervention …

    I will believe you when you, next time you are brought to emergency room of a hospital with bursting appendix, also bring with you 100 of your best friends and use crowd knowledge to operate on you. After all – they have to know more than just one white-haired guy, right?

    So, pretty please, stop with that. The fact that majority does something simply means that that specific something is mediocre. By definition. If you want excellent, you must look elsewhere. So, no, thank you very much, I do not want to be the hostage of the majority’s mediocrity and I do want Government to force airlines to create human environment on the aircraft. I am sick and tired to be treated like a cattle. Yes, I am willing to pay for it. No, Economy Comfort does not address the problem. Wide body airplanes are used in less than 10% of the flights I take inside U.S. Regional jet flights comprise more than 50% of the flights I must take for my business travel.

    So, let’s stop with nonsense and let Government do its job – protecting its citizens, not its businesses.

  • wilcoxon

    Sorry but that is simply not true. I’m tall and I simply CAN NOT fit in most economy seats any longer. There are even some premium economy that I can’t fit into (not to mention the way a lot of airlines handle buying premium economy means that you don’t know if it is available until after you’ve bought an economy ticket). As such, I’m stuck paying astronomical costs for business class with little other choice. Business class is definitely not the cheapest it’s ever been. I would like an economy seat available that I actually fit into. To me, if airlines are going to continue shrinking seats, they must be required to make seats available at coach prices that tall people can actually use (whether that’s premium or business or whatever).

  • SimoneNY

    One of the problems with the premium economy seats is the no-refund policy that goes along with booking them. For example, I’m a frequent flyer on AA and when I book my economy seat, I also put in a request for an upgrade (using miles or coupons). If I get my upgrade, I don’t get a refund on the extra cost I paid for the premium economy seat. That’s not right. I earn those coupons with my patronage, and I buy them for cold hard cash as well, so why shouldn’t I get a refund on the extra money? If I wait until the last minute to book premium, there may not be any left. Also, if I need to change my flight, I pay a change fee, and I get the ticket price I’ve paid as a credit MINUS the upgrade fee. So if I’ve paid $400. over the cost of my ticket to sit in premium economy, and then have to change my dates, I only get the initial fare as credit and the $400. paid for the upgrade doesn’t apply to the new booking! So for a new booking, along with the change fee, I’d have to pay another $400. for the upgrade to premium economy. That’s just wrong.
    So when the airlines complain that not enough people buy the premium economy, you need to look at the reasons. It’s not always as simply as not wanting to pay more for a little comfort. It’s that their policies make everything so damn anti-customer.
    I agree with the premise that while I want government out of private business, I DO want government to make a standard seat size. I’m 5’6″ and a size 6, not exactly an overweight giant, and those economy seats are just disgustingly tiny and I’ve got the bruised knees to prove it.

  • James

    Seatguru disagrees with you. There are two layouts for the UA

    777. In both , the regular economy seat is 18-inches wide and 31-inches apart. In economy plus, it is 18 inches wide, and 34 inches apart. In both cases, they are rows of nine seats.

    Even “Business-First” has rows that are 8 seats wide.

    The two-class 777 look much better for economy, but gain the only different ebtween economyu and economy plus is pitch.

    http://www.seatguru.com/airlines/United_Airlines/United_Airlines_Boeing_777-200_3_New.php

    http://www.seatguru.com/airlines/United_Airlines/United_Airlines_Boeing_777-200_2_New.php

    http://www.seatguru.com/airlines/United_Airlines/United_Airlines_Boeing_777-200_6.php

  • Melinda

    This is not a black and white question, because airlines like Delta, United, and American don’t have an premium economy cabin. They offer Comfort (DL), Economy Plus (UA) and Main Cabin Extra (AA). There is no difference in the seat or comfort of the seat itself. It simply has extra legroom (4 – 6 inches). When you are talking airlines that offer a premium economy class of service, that is mostly international carriers, and with all airlines, premium economy is NOT created equal. BA’s for instance, isn’t a patch on what is offered on Air New Zealand, Virgin, or Air France. I flew LAX – LHR last year and coach was $1458 and premium economy was $1875 on Air New Zealand. Well for that amount, it’s worth it. (For me, FYI, I am willing to pay double coach fare for an upgraded experience, because I simply cannot afford business on international flights.) I just priced flights for a client LAX – Zurich and Warsaw to LAX on Air France in premium economy, and it was $2117. Coach was $1148. I’ve priced premium economy to Auckland at $3800 and coach for $1300 on the same flight. So the fares WILDLY differ depending on dates, destinations, airlines, etc… It’s too bad that there isn’t a little more uniformity. Air NZ, by far, has the biggest seats in premium economy if you can get on one of their aircraft that has the SPACE SEAT. I won’t fly anything but this now, long distance.

  • PolishKnightUSA

    I was just thinking of how the MPAA successfully killed off more violent/adult films during the 80’s. They created a rating (Adult I think) and films that got labeled that, wouldn’t be run in most theaters because they sounded like,er, “Adult” films. The label was the kiss of death. Later, the NC-17 rating came out which sounded more innoculous.

    Another observation: Car dealerships didn’t like the term “used cars” so they started calling them “pre-owned” (all cars are pre-owned, really, but the manufacturer). A better term is second hand. In any case, they desperately wanted to market away a bad perception they had earned.

    Perhaps the same could be done for the airlines. Have the state define an “economy” seat with a certain size, pitch, etc. and level of service (beverage and snack) and everything below that would be “sub-economy”. The trick the airlines have done is degrade economy service by increments and then get away with calling basic service “plus.”

  • PolishKnightUSA

    There’s a funny cracked article about the various television ads that various manufacturers got busted on. For example, a well known yogurt maker claimed their product helped you, er, poop better. It turns out those claims were unfounded and they had to withdraw them.

    My argument is that most consumers aren’t fully educated about the product they’re getting. Most book via search engines that don’t give them information about the comfort level of the product. I just went to one popular engine and there was no mention of the seat pitch or even any baggage fees (at least until clicking through to purchase.)

    Consumers didn’t “vote”. They got bait and switched.

    Then to upgrade to actual service that’s tolerable, “plus” prices are equally difficult to compare. Buying upfront is costly but sometimes can be purchased at the gate for less.

    Finally, consumers didn’t “vote” for consolidation. That was fully out of their reach.

  • PolishKnightUSA

    I’m reminded of the Y2K bug and how Japanese airline owners were on their own planes at midnight to put their own lives on the line.

    Let’s have a federal law that publically traded SEC registered firms should require their CEO’s and executives to ride in basic economy class (not business or even plus) for all of their meetings. No private jets. In addition, their golden parachutes that guarantee them free travel for life should also be in economy class.

    Remember the TARP bill? I think it was Obama who put in that CEO’s had a pay freeze until they paid the money back. Apparently, a lot of them did quickly. Nothing motivated the CEO’s faster than their own paycheck on the line.

  • PolishKnightUSA

    Previously, the tall folks used to get the exit row but now that’s been set up as a premium seat.